Local Spotlight: Bayhead Honey, From Bee to Thee
By Crystal Wakoa
Reno and Veona Plenge, owners of Bayhead Honey, bring many years of experience and stellar credentials to their business. After tasting their tupelo honey, you’ll agree that they’re not just your average master beekeepers. They have PHDs–Perfect Honey that is Delicious!
Really, Veona is a retired registered nurse. Reno served 21 years in the military, and then ran a mom-and-pop hotel in Panama City until the economy went sour. “When I met Veona 25 years ago, her son was a bee inspector for the State of Florida,” says Reno. “That’s when I got the bug.” Bayhead Honey was officially born in 1994.
Now in their mid-70’s, Reno and Veona continue to take charge of every aspect of their business, from managing the hives, harvesting the honey, to bottling and distributing. “From the bee to thee,” as Reno describes it.
Tupelo honey is made from the nectar of the white tupelo tree, a swamp-loving species whose fragrant blossoms open for a mere two weeks in the spring. The tree itself is found only in the Apalachicola River Basin of North Florida and South Georgia. It is in this narrow zone, near the confluence of the Chipola River and the Apalachicola, that Reno and Veona make their home and tend their bees.
“How do you know that the bees are bringing to your hives only the nectar of the white tupelo, and not the nectar from some other flower or tree?” I ask Reno.
“Well, that’s a good question. We can’t stand out at the hive with a little whip,” Reno says teasingly. “The secret is in the timing.”
“We keep a close watch on the white tupelo trees, and the night before we see that they’re going to burst into bloom, usually just after April 15, we move the hives to the river and let the bees go to work.”
The bees are plentiful, fat and happy by mid-April because Reno and Veona have built up their hives on the nectar of ty-ty, from which wildflower honey is made. But all traces of the non-tupelo honey must be removed from the hives before they’re moved. “Harvesting and moving is a load of work for one day,” Reno says. “We’re lucky that our grandson and neighbor pitch in to help. Everyone is dead tired at the end of moving day.”
Once the hives are placed among the white tupelo, Reno keeps a careful watch on them, replacing the supers—framed boxes within which the bees deposit the nectar, magically transforming it into one of the rarest, purest honeys in the world.
The bees have a narrow window of time in which to work this alchemy. “I’ve seen the blossoms last as few as five days, and as many as two and a half weeks,” Reno tells me. Once that window is closed, the hives come back home. Reno then hauls the supers into the honey house, where the honey is extracted into drums and then bottled. The honey is not filtered other than to strain out any stray wax particles.
“Our honey is raw, but I don’t like that word much,” says Reno. “Raw sounds scratchy, and our honey is anything but scratchy. Pure is a better word.”
And pure is the word that describes the intention, grace and humility with which Reno and Veona conduct their honey business. “We just try to take care of each other and our bees,” says Veona. You can find their fine tupelo honey at New Leaf Market in one, two and three pound jars. Pure goodness.